A plan to keep publishing news seven days-a-week by selling shares to readers, and give them iPads to read it on rolls into Chattanooga this week.
Privately-owned WEHCO Media started switching from print to a digital replica format in 2018 – starting with its Arkansas Democrat-Gazette – claiming that the alternative was cut content and journalists.
Now a move made "out of necessity" to create a sustainable business model is being extended.
The company has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars while converting mastheads including the Pine Bluff and Hot Springs’ Sentinel-Record has brought the concept to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Walter E. Hussman Jr, chairman of the company which bears the same initials as its founder, has told readers the digital conversion is necessary for the newspaper to remain profitable and continue to serve the area with quality local journalism
And a plan to raise cash through the sale of preferred stock to locals is helping meet the multimillion-dollar cost of the transition. Thousands of Apple iPads are being bought for subscribers to use to access the digital replica of the newspaper, and funds will help support the cost of ‘one-on-one training’ for customers.
Delivery of the print edition is set to end by mid-2022, although the Sunday edition will continue.
A digital replica which looks like the print paper but with some additional features, will be available every day “usually by 4 am”.
Hussman – whose company publishes ten other dailies, weekly newspapers and cable and broadband operations – has told readers it is the only way to continue publishing “the kind of paper we publish in Chattanooga”, covering as many meetings and serving as a watchdog for the community.
He chose to cut the cost of printing and distributing the paper rather than reduce its news staff or the number of pages.
Earlier this year, he said the digital replica plan would require a US$6.1 million investment from the company, with $4.4 million going to purchase iPads, and $1.7 million toward training and some marketing.
The preferred stock plan came after WEHCO was offered the opportunity to acquire Gannett’s Pine Bluff Commercial, Hussman saying they realised that an investment of $400,000 would be needed.
Not only would community investment cover the cost of the iPads and training, "but I thought this might create a model for other newspapers around America to copy in order to cover those large, and what appeared to many newspaper owners, as prohibitive upfront costs" of the plan.